Three episodes deep into Westworld, it's become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They've lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can't be switched off with a command. Their bodies can't heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They're people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
Directed by the great Neil Marshall, tonight’s episode ("The Stray") plays neither to his strengths as an architect of massive action set pieces (see Game of Thrones' "Blackwater") nor to his surefire survival-horror instincts in films such as The Descent. It's basically a straight continuation of the plot lines, themes, and tone of the previous two installments, with all that entails – to wit, cornball flesh-and-blood human beings wandering around a story that's much more interesting when they're not there.
We learn, for example, that lead programmer Bernard's son died young, and that he appears to be pushing girl-next-door android Dolores toward true consciousness in hopes of replacing the life he lost. (Giving someone a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the least subtle signal that we're through the looking glass here.) We also discover that his mentor, Dr. Robert Ford, had a partner named Arnold whose obsession with the hosts' potential sentience drove many of them to malfunction, and drove the man himself to suicide. Ford was content to let the guy be written out of the official history, and reveals the co-founder's existence primarily as a cautionary tale. If you believe all the details in his account, though … well, we've got a great story about Darth Vader betraying and murdering Anakin Skywalker to tell you.
Meanwhile, white-hat newcomer William remains a softie despite making his first kill, and if anything his buddy Logan is an even more one-dimensional creep than ever. The two are about to become brothers-in-law, and the sleazeball took his goody-two-shoes friend there to get laid guilt-free before settling down with his sister. (We hope she cuts him out of the wedding party.) In an episode focused mainly on the robots' pasts, the Homo sapien backstories are so flimsy you almost have to wonder if this is some kind of metacommentary.
Fortunately, you really don't have to bother wondering that hard, because the "host" material more than holds its own. Watching the androids interact by themselves, without any humans to perform for or react to, remains one of the most unusual and engrossing sights sci-fi television has ever served up. This goes double now that we've seen our main droids run through their scripts several times, enough to pick up subtle but significant differences with each new iteration. For instance, Teddy and Dolores share much of the same dialogue as they used to. But now that Teddy has been given a somewhat more rough-and-tumble demeanor, leaning hard on his tough-guy bounty-hunter role, it takes on an entirely different tone. For her part, the good Miss Abernathy endures the home-invasion storyline we saw in the pilot every night, but in the absence of either her white knight or the Man in Black, she has far more freedom to react and respond.
Other host-centric storylines teach us a great deal about what constitutes Westworld's gameplay, for lack of a better term. The group of outlaw low-lifes who raid Dolores' home on a nightly basis, for example, also attempt to inveigle a guest into gang-raping her when they spot her on the street earlier that day – an atrocity the human would be amenable to if the intervention of Teddy didn't make it too challenging a level to beat, as it were. Having sex with androids is one thing; committing sex crimes alongside them is a layer of catering to people's worst instincts that hadn't even occurred to us before.
Elsewhere, we encounter problems with the hosts that feel ripped from YouTube videos of weird World of Warcraft glitches. The episode takes its title from a host who wanders off on his own after obsessively carving the constellation Orion into his woodwork. The other members of his group wind up stuck in an endless loop around a campfire none of them can light because he was the only one with electronic permission to use an axe and chop up firewood; the stray somehow snaps back to life in the middle of being beheaded by a park employee, only to smash his own skull in with a large rock. If you've ever watched a non-player character in an online roleplaying game go batshit due to bad code, this looks fascinatingly familiar.
Most intriguing of all, however, is Ford's new narrative – the introduction of a berserk death cult that wears the skins of their slain enemies, led by an insane Army deserter whom the Doctor incorporates into Teddy’s mysterious backstory. Suddenly, the black church steeple in the middle of nowhere from last week makes sense: With these crazed, slasher-like killers, he's creating something closer to Mad Max or The Walking Dead than Gunsmoke. Given the depravity most guests come to the park to commit, going full-on apocalyptic is just plain good customer service.
Previously: Cheap Thrills